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  December 1998    

New technologies make world a classroom
In early October, the UNU participated in several events at the UNESCO-organized World Conference on Higher Education in Paris. Nearly 4,200 policy makers, experts, professors, parliamentarians, students and business leaders - including 115 nations' education ministers - debated the theme of "Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century: Vision and Action."

This conference spanned five days of thematic debates, plenary sessions and commissions, and resulted in the a unanimously adopted World Declaration and a Framework for Priority Action for Change and Development of Higher Education. These set the fundamental principles for an in-depth reform of higher education around the world.

UNU Institute of Advanced Studies Director Tarcisio Della Senta organized a special panel session, "From the Traditional to the Virtual: New Information Technologies."

The UNU/IAS Virtual University Project, in collaboration with UNESCO and with the support of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) and the Ministry of Education, Science, Sports and Culture of Japan, provided extensive live coverage of the conference over the Internet (see Internet site for archives of the speeches and thematic debates:

This is the first time such extensive coverage was provided for a UNESCO conference, with nearly 40 hours of total programming. The coverage was received with great enthusiasm by conference participants and speakers (who continually visited the UNU booth to see it on the large-screen display), and by "virtual participants" around the world. Well over 2000 Internet participants visited the site to read about the conference, view it and add to discussions on the electronic forums.

During the New Information Technologies panel, a UNU/IAS-orgnized special session provided a multipoint videoconference that connected sites in Brazil (Federal University of Santa Caterina), Morocco, Japan (UNU/IAS), the United States (Carnegie-Mellon University), and the UNESCO conference hall in a five-way exchange, because at each site, the other four sites could be viewed. The virtual participants presented various forms of information technologies used in virtual education, including emerging digital libraries, postgraduate distance education courses, and satellite-based educational systems. The limits and potentials of these new educational media also were discussed.

UNU/IAS also provided a summary of its new manuscript "Access to Knowledge: New Information Tech-nologies and the Emerging Virtual University," which tracks various technologies, educational functions and systems, and institutional and regional experiences with virtual education from around the world.

The UNU booth also provided extensive coverage of UNU activities at the conference, including information on the UNU Centre, IAS, INRA, IIST, GEIC and WIDER. The UNU booth display was one of the most comprehensive and well-attended at the huge conference, including video and PC demonstrations of computer software and educational systems from IAS Virtual University project partners such as NTT and universities around the world, a wide-screen display of the live Internet coverage as well as more traditional materials such as books and brochures.

Rector chairs wide-ranging debate

On 6 October, UNU Rector Hans van Ginkel opened and moderated a lively debate on the emerging role of universities in refining the concept of sustainability. The debate also touched on strategies to reorient research programmes and curricula to collaborate with institutions outside the university, with the larger goal of reconciling economic and social progress with the safeguarding of global life support systems.

Van Ginkel opened the meeting by explaining three ground rules. First, the focus was on higher education. Second, the subject of discussion was sustainable human development, defined as including more than merely environmental concerns. Third, the aim was to move beyond declarations and to develop concrete actions. He then introduced the structure of the debate and the keynote speakers.

The first keynote speaker, UNESCO's Dr. Gustavo Lopez Ospina, talked about the need for new course content incorporating sustainable development and ethical questions as well as new institutional structures and approaches to education.

Dr. Peter Heller introduced the activities of local governments around the world following the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the importance of Local Agenda 21 - a community-based, participatory approach to environmental action planning. He called on universities and their associations to become more involved in this process.

Professor Huatouot then mentioned the need for holistic and multidisciplinary approaches and lifelong learning. He described recent experiences in Africa with higher education, and the importance of the Open University system.

Dr. Riejte van Dam-Mieras spoke of the need for all university graduates to be environmentally literate, and of the importance of promoting knowledge transfer. She also highlighted the need to equip people to deal with complex social situations and to include a global dimension in higher education classes. This should stimulate people to contribute to sustainable development from their chosen field of specialization.

There followed a lively debate stimulated by contributions from selected discussants and from the audience. Some raised concerns about the contradictions facing universities relating to their need to be both holistic and specialist at the same time. Others pointed out to the importance of community-based learning. Still others discussed the notion of trans-disciplinarity, i.e., the importance of spirituality and its relationship to science, and how best to influence values and promote positive change.

The thematic debate turned to a discussion of six key actions proposed in the report. The audience also made additional recommendations. The session ended with a discussion that highlighted the important roles of the UNU and UNESCO in accelerating the rate of change and in bringing universities around the world together.

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